By Jonathan Gault
November 13, 2017
This time last year, Eric Heins was preparing to coach his final race at Northern Arizona University, a race that the Lumberjacks would ultimately win to earn the school’s first national title in any sport. Heins was on top of the world – well at the least the collegiate cross country world. One year later, Heins is out of the sport entirely.
What happened? Well, before the start of last season, Heins announced that 2016 would be his last year at NAU. His wife, Kaci, had been offered her dream job as educational supervisor at Space Center Houston and Eric wanted to support her just as Kaci had supported him during his coaching career. However, that required stepping back from his role as head coach at NAU and moving to Houston (Kaci and the couple’s nine-year-old son Chase moved there in August 2016; Heins joined them four months later).
Few NCAA coaches this decade have been as successful as Heins. During his stint as head coach at NAU, from 2007 to 2016, Heins’ cross country teams made the NCAA podium six times in 10 years, capped by that national title last fall in Terre Haute.
Heins is still only 40 years old and has not ruled out a return to coaching, but for now he’s enjoying his new life in the Lone Star State. LetsRun.com caught up with him last week to hear all about it — and his thoughts on NAU’s chances of a repeat in Louisville on Saturday.
JG:What have you been up to since you stopped coaching?
EH: I immediately moved into a role with [NAU] as an admissions officer. So I am working from my home, traveling to high schools around Houston and the rest of the state of Texas as well as Chicago and just basically recruiting for the general student population.
Any similarities or differences between recruiting athletes vs. recruiting normal students?
With the athletes, it was much more specific and zeroed in on who you were going after whereas this is much more of casting a wider net. Once you get to students that are interested, a lot of times the same type of students that are interested in coming to NAU [as regular student are the same as] the student-athletes that came. Kids from Texas – they want to get somewhere where there’s a change in seasons, maybe want to see the mountains and have some snow. That’s always a big selling point for us and it’s a big selling point for us in recruiting the student-athletes as well, getting them up to altitude and being in a different spot for four or five years.
And how did that position come about? Was it something that you asked the university to do or did they reach out to you? How did you come to be doing this?
I knew the university had regional admissions officers and so I started to tell anyone that would listen, including our athletic director, Dr. Lisa Campos, and then Dr. Rita Cheng, our president of the university, and I pretty much wanted to float that idea that I was going to be in the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and why not have an admissions officer/recruiter down there. And I actually didn’t know exactly what I might be able to do but I thought something along the lines of maybe fundraising or alumni relations or recruiting for the university and something came up with the admissions officer.
Obviously Hurricane Harvey had a big impact on the city over the summer. Were you or your family impacted by that at all?
We were fortunately not impacted directly. We did not have any sort of damage. We lost power for about 36 hours but we had running water the whole time and there was no flooding. The stores nearby, those were closed, so we definitely were fortunate that we packed up enough food and water and things like that. Probably the biggest thing was just not being able to get out of your house and drive down the street and get something if you needed it because everything was closed.
Was it an easy transition for you from coaching to admissions officer?
I would say professionally, it was easy in terms of I knew the university. There were some things in terms of the admissions side that I hadn’t really studied as much as a coach, so there were some things I needed to learn. It was really a quick pickup for me. I’d say it was more challenging personally than professionally.
What was challenging personally?
Just [going from] being around the student-athletes all day long, being around the staff all day long to where I’m working out of my house. I’ll go to different high schools and usually there are some other regional officers from other universities there, so that’s kind of a cohort that I’m working with. But right now I’m sitting at my home by myself and working out of my home office. That’s a big change to go from where you’re always involved, whether you’re winning or losing, you’re always getting constant feedback to where now it feels much slower.
What kind of stuff do you get a chance to do now that you didn’t while you were coaching?
Well, having my weekends to just go to different events. That’s probably the biggest thing. Whether it be some sort of festival close by — we live close to the Galveston Bay, so there’s a boardwalk pretty close to us. There’s always something going on at the Kemah Boardwalk. So doing things like that at the weekend, or being able to do some things with my wife and son during the week. Definitely we feel like there’s much more freedom now than I had as a coach.
So one year later, do you think you made the right decision?
Oh, I made the right decision. For sure, yeah. My wife just yesterday, she had an event at the Space Center where she’s working. There was a Lego relief of three or four female scientists that worked for NASA, one of them being the first female African-American astronaut. And she was at the Space Center and my wife is a space nut so she ended up getting her autograph and was just going bonkers about it, just really excited to meet people like that. I had a great opportunity and enjoyed every minute as a coach and I definitely miss it but it’s great to see my wife be so happy and talk about those experiences with her job now.
Have you done anything to stay involved in the sport at all?
Honestly, I haven’t. I have been kicking around the idea still of doing some coaching online but I haven’t gotten that up and running. I really took some time just to get involved with my new job and be at home and try to do as much as I can around the house. I’ll call Coach [Mike] Smith, every once in a while, I’ll call Coach [Kenny] McDaniel, the sprint coach, or I’ll text him. And I definitely still have some friends in the sport, so I’m following it, but I haven’t necessarily stayed involved with the sport.
Have you been following NAU’s results this year? Do you have any thoughts on their performance?
Oh yeah, I’ve definitely been following their results. My first year last year during the indoor track season, I had the Big Sky Conference Championships, I was watching the streaming of it, I had the live results going — I actually had better results than the live results at the conference championship host! So I was really into it when I first got out. This year during cross country, I’ve been following as much as I can and have been really impressed with how those guys out there have been racing and how Coach has just brought along both teams, both men and women, to really be running well at the end of the year, which is when it counts.
I’ve talked to some coaches in the past who, once they leave a program, they want to see the program do well but they don’t want to see the program do too well — because if the team starts suddenly doing a lot better, I don’t know if that says something about them. I don’t know if that necessarily applies here because obviously you can’t do better than an NCAA title, but do you have those sort of thoughts when you watch the team now?
Being somebody that had to work my way up and follow coaches, I definitely sensed that and then [I] also know coaches that have gone through that as well, I always told myself that I never wanted to be like that. The great thing is that I have great relationships with everybody on campus at NAU as well as all the coaches. So I’m pulling for Mike and [assistant coach] Jarred [Cornfield] and Coach McDaniel. I’m pulling for everybody out there to continue to get this thing better. I definitely don’t have any hesitation that if they do better than I did, I’m just gonna be proud of them.
What do you miss the most about coaching?
I definitely miss the competition and the excitement of going into events. Just like how you plan and organize things and then having everything fall on in terms of how you organize and get teams prepared to compete, that’s something I miss, for sure.
What do you miss the least about coaching?
I would say being on-call constantly. It’s a lifestyle, so once you get involved in that lifestyle, you have to understand that you’re always on and there’s never any point to where you’re just kind of off. Whereas right now, I feel like 5 p.m. hits and I can close my laptop and I’m done for the day. And I can go shoot baskets with my son or just hang out for a little bit around the house. I think in coaching, I definitely needed a break and I’m appreciating that break now of not constantly being on.
I have seen that you’re open to coming back to coaching one day. Do you have any idea when that might be?
No, honestly I don’t know when. A lot of that is gonna depend on our location here. There’s not too many options to coach collegiately where we’re located so it’s all going to be specific timing and if it’s the right time. I guess I can’t predict the future, we all know that, but I don’t know when that’s gonna be.
Do you imagine you’ll be in Houston long-term though, because of your wife’s job?
Sure, yeah, yeah. If you’re asking me that, we thought we should stay here at least 10 years so that our son isn’t moving around a lot as he grows up and gets into high school. Definitely through the next eight to nine years that we’re here, [we’re] trying to keep things consistent and if something presents itself here locally, then I’ll consider it. But I’m enjoying myself right now.
NCAAs are this weekend. I’m assuming you’re picking NAU for the win? Will you be watching online?
Yeah, I’m definitely picking NAU for the win. Kind of a biased opinion there but I think that NAU is running great. And obviously BYU is running great as well. As a coach, I could never pick out different teams because then inadvertently, you’d leave somebody else out and that would obviously give somebody some bulletin-board material to motivate them. But I think that from the outside perspective looking in, I think BYU is a fantastic team and I think that they’re gonna present a great challenge to the defending champs there at NAU. And Syracuse and Stanford are moving up as well.
Then I’ve kind of got a soft spot in my heart for Southern Utah. I think Coach [Eric] Houle does a great job. They’ve had a couple of great meets early on in the year and if they can put it together, then I think they’re a dark horse to podium.
More: Men’s Preview: LRC Clash of the Titans: No. 1 NAU & No. 2 BYU Square Off In Classic Battle In Louisville for the 2017 NCAA XC Title On paper, the battle for the men’s 2017 NCAA Cross Country team title looks like it could be epic. We break it down for you.